Skip to main content

Obama's speech a model of persuasion

By David Kusnet, Special to CNN
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed September 11, 2013
President Barack Obama approaches the podium in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, September 10, for a speech addressing the nation on the justification for possible military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The regime is accused of launching a horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people. President Barack Obama approaches the podium in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, September 10, for a speech addressing the nation on the justification for possible military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The regime is accused of launching a horrific chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed more than 1,400 people.
HIDE CAPTION
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
Obama makes his case on Syria
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Kusnet: Barack Obama's Syria speech changed minds with its masterly execution
  • He says it's instructive: He identified with his audience, war-weary but open-minded
  • He says he clearly explained risks chemical weapons pose to all, and why he went to Congress
  • Kusnet: He anticipated and answered questions, invoked American exceptionalism

Editor's note: David Kusnet was President Bill Clinton's chief speechwriter from 1992 through 1994. He is the senior writer and a principal at the Podesta Group, a government relations and public relations firm.

(CNN) -- Sixty-one percent of Americans polled, who watched President Obama's prime-time speech, told CNN that they support his policy towards Syria.

Since some surveys showed as much as two-thirds opposition to military action against Syria in the days before the speech, the poll suggests that he did what presidents rarely do: change people's minds, if only temporarily.

Read the speech

How did he do it? In only 15 minutes, President Obama made his points, simply and straightforwardly. Anyone arguing a controversial case in the court of public opinion can learn from what he said and how he said it:

David Kusnet
David Kusnet

Identifying with the audience. Addressing a war-weary public, President Obama began by saying that he had "resisted calls for military action" in Syria before "Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people." The message: The terrible event that changed my mind should change yours, too.

Opinion: Obama's speech won't sell Americans on Syria

Telling a story. President Obama told how the world community declared chemical weapons "off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war." His story began with the deadly use of gas in the trenches in World War I and continued with the Nazi use of poison gas in the Holocaust.

Bringing it home. Having made the human rights case, President Obama explained why chemical weapons threaten Americans. If Assad isn't punished, "our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield." Terrorists could get these weapons and use them against civilians. Iran could be emboldened to build nuclear weapons.

Obama: Military strike will deter Syria
Santorum: No moral obligation to strike
Jones: We agreed, and world didn't end
Analysis on Obama's Syria speech

Invoking the American system. Some opponents warn he's willfully starting a new war. Others call him indecisive because he delayed military action. President Obama said he's taking the debate to Congress, even though he maintains he doesn't have to, because "our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress."

Obama seeks support for attacking Syria while pursuing diplomacy

Answering questions. Like the FAQs on a website, much of the speech answered questions that President Obama said members of Congress and private citizens have asked him, such as "Won't this put us on a slippery slope to another war?" President Reagan also made a point of answering questions that people had asked in their letters to him. In his address to a Joint Session of Congress after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush answered questions, as did Winston Churchill in his radio talks during World War II.

Offering hopeful news. Towards the end of a speech that could have been completed several days earlier, President Obama discussed the latest developments surrounding the Russian proposal that Syria turn over its weapons to international authorities. Yes, the transition sounded choppy, but listeners care more about encouraging news than elegant rhetoric.

Opinion: Speech aims to keep heat on Syria

Appealing to American patriotism. President Obama said America is "different" because we right wrongs when we can. Answering the common criticism that he doesn't believe in "American Exceptionalism," he concluded, "That's what makes America exceptional... Let us never lose sight of that essential truth."

With down-to-earth arguments and a lofty conclusion, last night's speech was a model of how to turn an audience around, point by point.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of David Kusnet.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 5:22 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 12:08 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Sat September 13, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT